When bartender Brock Minvielle arrived for work at 4 a.m. Saturday, he wasn’t surprised to see the Oz nightclub packed. But he was surprised about who was on the dance floor.
“It’s pride weekend in the French Quarter,” said Minvielle, as he wiped down the bar and got ready for a busy day. “But when I arrived here this morning, I saw way more straight people than gay.”
Still, while bar owners say an increasing number of straight people gather at the city’s gay bars and nightclubs, many gay customers still view the clubs as a necessary safe haven, a place of solace and unity.
Golden Lantern customer John Marshall, 28, who sported rainbow suspenders and a rainbow bow tie for pride weekend, called the Lantern “a place of acceptance for me.”
Marshall said he and his friends patronize only gay bars. “It’s where we feel safe, where we’re happy,” he said.
Bartender Josh Blanton nodded from across the bar. “That’s a hard part about Pulse. It’s a violation of that safe space,” said Blanton, 30, who had pinned a small button to his Golden Lantern T-shirt bearing the logo for Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a lone gunman killed 49 people a week ago in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
Like most of New Orleans’ gay establishments, the exterior of the Lantern was decorated for the weekend with rainbow flags and rainbow-colored bunting to commemorate pride 2016, the annual celebration of the city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
But the Lantern’s sign, which has hung proudly out front since 1964, was masked all day Saturday by a black replica of Pulse’s logo.
Nearly all of the city’s nearly two dozen gay bars had pledged to similarly cover their signs just before Saturday night’s scheduled pride parade. Some of the bars also were selling T-shirts and other items to raise money for the Orlando victims.
“It gives us a sense of solidarity with the people in Orlando, that we stand with them,” Blanton said.
That general sense of solidarity and togetherness is what has driven pride celebrations across the country for more than 40 years.
Most pride events, then called gay pride, began in the early 1970s as a way to show support for gay communities in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riot after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar.
Gay pride celebrations in New Orleans began about that time and turned into an annual event in 1978, said gay-history authority Frank Perez. “But the last police raid of a New Orleans gay bar was in 1984. So it was still dicey to be gay,” he said.
Perez, a tour guide and chronicler of the city’s gay history, is helping to document that history as president of the nonprofit LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana.
He is also well known for his book “In Exile,” about what’s said to be the nation’s longest continuously operating gay bar, Café Lafitte in Exile, which operated from 1933 to 1953 at the site now known as Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. In 1953, after a new owner objected to its clientele, it renamed itself Café Lafitte in Exile and moved a short distance down Bourbon Street, where it’s still prominent today, decked out with rainbow flags and posters of shirtless men with six-pack abs.
But times have changed. At the Blacksmith Shop, longtime bartender Tricia Ludwig, 47, annually mixes up a batch of purple daiquiris in honor of pride weekend. “We’re not a gay bar, but during pride, you could basically call us a gay bar,” she said.
Only a few decades ago, coming out as openly gay was much more difficult than now, said Toby Lefort, 44, a manager of the nearby Bourbon Pub and Parade Disco at St. Ann and Bourbon streets, across from the Oz.
When Lefort first came out at age 20, he liked to go to the Corner Pocket, a gay bar in his hometown of Houma. But like many of the bar’s other customers, he preferred to enter through the back door, “so that no one would see me going in,” he said.
Perez, too, remembers those days, when people could be ostracized, fired from jobs, beaten or even killed for being gay. “And I think Orlando demonstrates that our history is not too far behind us,” he said.
But Lefort sees a changing mindset, one that makes it easy for him to walk down the street with his male partner, and one that is reflected by the changing clientele of his bar. “It’s much more mixed now, straight and gay,” he said. “And I think that’s a good sign.”
Owners and bartenders at some of the Quarter’s other best-known gay bars agreed, saying that increasingly, their clientele is not predominantly gay.
“In here, it’s not about gay or straight; it’s about neighborhood,” said the Lantern’s owner, James Garner, 48.
He looked over the handful of people sitting on bar stools in his Royal Street establishment Saturday. “There are only five people in here,” Garner said. “And two are straight.”
At Good Friends Bar at Dauphine and St. Ann streets, bartender Rene Landry, 27, also sees his increasingly mixed crowds as a sign of progress for gay people like himself. “As we seek acceptance in other communities, we need to be more accepting of people coming into our communities,” he said.
A few bartenders pointedly noted that the most challenging part of the new clientele was what one described as “screeching bachelorette parties.”
Perez laughed and said he agreed with that assessment. “But if that’s the price we have to pay for all the strides we’ve made, so be it,” he said.